#SEvolution: Three new skills for the future Solutions Engineer

I was around when there were no clouds.

In IT, that is.

I’m turning 38 this year. High aged in modern tech terms. Back then, when first generation IT outsourcing was born, we SEs used Excel on our desktops more often than Powerpoint.

We crunched numbers on labor arbitrage, calculated multi-year transition and transformation programs in Gantt-charts. (Before there were Gantt chart plugins.) Contract durations 8+ years were pretty common; so were presales projects with 12 months of dedicated, intense work.

Solutions Engineering evolved. (Luckily.)

Today, there are many clouds. Contracts are closed rather quickly, pay as you go. I don’t have Excel on my laptop.

Presales assignments are picked from a portfolio of prospect customers, multiple at the same time. We SEs focus on the individual company and person in front of us as good as we possibly can. We research. Discover. Interview. Design, demo, pitch, discuss, close. – And we move on.

I expect this new is going to be the past, soon. Let me explain.


What is broken in current Solutions Engineering

You have seen this graph before. MarTech’s Law. A depiction of the growing gap between technological innovation (exponential rate) and its adoption in organizations (logarithmic rate).

Scott Brinker: MarTech’s Law

Despite its simplification, there’s truth in it:
(A) technological innovation happens fast
(B) technology adoption happens slow
(C) course correction through greater transformation is possible, but it’s…

  • …hard;
  • …rarely sustainable (i.e. the logarithmic curve would jump one time, just to continue its flat, logarithmic course);
  • …therefore pointless, unless the adoption of technology is led by an adoption of a new mindset, too (i.e. the adoption curve takes an exponential-ish spin).

Okay, so increasing the adoption of change is DIFFICULT. Is there a compelling reason for doing it then? You bet. There are companies (some that exist and some that will soon) that are designed for an exponential-ish curve of adopting technological innovation.

98% chance that you have seen some of those existing companies on a slide next to the term “Digital Disruption”.

Compelling enough.

Solutions Engineering has been part of the problem that got us here.
It’s our job inspire customer to embrace (our) technological innovation.
Solutions Engineering will be part of the solution*, too.

*) pun intended


(1) From Opportunistic to Strategic

SE organizations for cloud services have been very opportunistic over the years. Answering RFPs, solving those problems the customer asks for. Selling services, working with the customer, discovering new problems, selling new services.

Can’t blame the vendor. Opportunistic is good. Pays the bills. Can’t blame the buyer either. The buyer sees a problem. Asks for a solution. Gets it fixed by the vendor.

That’s how it’s been for years.

Two issues.

(A) We overestimate our ability to make predictions. (Illusion of validity)
(B) We don’t know, what we don’t know. Unknown unknowns scare us. When confronted with an ambiguous situation, we tend to choose the option whose outcome appears known, or knowable at least. (Ambiguity Effect)

The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future. (…) Our tendency to construct and believe coherent narratives of the past makes it difficult for us to accept the limits of our forecasting ability.

Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”)

So what?

Bud is a buyer. Bud wants a problem solved. It is a minor problem, actually a symptom of something else. Bud’s real problem is substantial, a bit hidden. Only noticeable in context of technological changes on the horizon. Bud doesn’t see that, because he doesn’t know that bigger context (unknown unknowns). Like driving a car, not noticing a road sign of a dead end ahead. Bud asks Vince, the vendor, to fix his minor problem.

Vince confronts Bud with the insight of the substantial problem which is likely to hit Bud in the future. Vince also proposes an option to implement preventive measures. Bud politely declines. Bud doesn’t see that big problem and thinks he’s right (see #A). Even if Bud would believe Vince: the substantial problem only materializes in the future; Bud cannot be 100% sure the proposed preventive measure would really make a difference (see #B).

As a result, Bud the buyer will stick to the minor problem, and keep taking decisions in that context (i.e. adopt change along the logarithmic curve in the MarTech graph).

Now what?

As an SE you see the elephant in the room. If you satisfy Bud’s ask, you will sell your services to fix their minor problem. It will make your AE happy. It won’t help Bud substantially though. If Bud continues his path (the logarithmic curve), chances are high he will fall behind competition – having to cut his budget that pays Vince’s services.

Vince doesn’t want that.

Vince wants his customer to be prospering. He wants to help Bud thrive. Which means it’s also Vince’s task to pivot from a purely opportunistic sales approach to a strategic one. Getting Bud’s technology adoption closer to the exponential curve.

How can Vince do that?


(2) From Extrapolation to Retropolation

As we established with reference to Kahneman:

  • We don’t understand our past well enough.
  • Extrapolation from the past to the future doesn’t work.
  • In fact, we cannot predict the future at all; it’s not knowable.

There is a vast space of things that can happen. A variety of possible futures. Or scenarios. Based on experience, knowledge and information accessible to us, we judge the likelihood of those scenarios differently.

So what?

Vince is an SE at a technology firm. He has access to information, people, and thinking that broaden his understanding of what is probable, plausible, and possible. Bud works at a manufacturing company, producing gas pipes. His view on all of that is narrow. That is why he doesn’t see the substantial problem – and VInce does.

(I) Vince can broaden Buds understanding of the future. By sharing his technological insights, research material, or a visionary demo. Still, Bud would ask: how is any of that helping me taking a decision today? Not much, yet.

(II) Vince can facilitate Bud’s thought process. How is Bud’s preferable futures looking like? Based on trends and data, as much as based on creativity and imagination they can design such a preferable future for Bud’s company. Gamified Futures Thinking Workshops offer a rich toolset to facilitate and steer this process. (Besides: it’s great fun.)

(III) Vince can encourage Bud to change his perspective on the future. From extrapolation (predict a future) to retropolation. In retropolation, Bud and Vince work backwards from the preferable future. During that Backcasting process they determine critical capabilities that are likely to be needed to achieve that preferable future. They also define actionable steps to build that capabilities (e.g. with the help of Vince’s technology company); and they identify indicators for the unfolding of a certain future scenario.

Retropolation in Strategic Solutions Engineering
Now what?

Bud and Vince co-created preferable futures. They worked their way backwards to today. They determined actions to make those preferable futures more likely.

Vince achieved the following:

(A) Broadened Bud’s view on what is a possible future. (Reduced unknown unknowns.) Bud is curious.
(B) Co-created a visionary state Bud would like to reach. Bud is emotionally invested.
(C) Changed Bud’s perception of the future from passive to active: future doesn’t just happen, but our actions influence the unfolding of a certain future scenario.


(3) From Solutions to Stories

As Peter Drucker put it: “Plans are just good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work“. Following a long-term plan is hard. One with a blurry correlation to visible outcomes even more.

To keep Bud motivated, focused, and active, Vince uses the power of visualization. Not in a bullshit sense. A study published in 2004 showed how mental training drove the test person’s muscles to a higher activation and increased strength.

Another great philosopher, Mohamed Ali, reportedly said: “If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it.

Up to this point, Vince achieved that Bud’s mind conceives his preferable future and the way to it. To see this path through, Bud’s heart needs to want it, too.

This is where stories enter the stage. As illustrations of preferable futures, they “have the power not only to catch people’s minds and imaginations but also to inspire them into a quest for new possibilities and untapped opportunities and to challenge them to think outside common mindsets” (Simon Elias Bibri, 2015).

That said: Storytelling is hyped. Sometimes loaded with acty, crappy, artificial nonsense.

Vince doesn’t want that.

Vince invests heavily in becoming a truthful, skilled storyteller. Easier said than done. There is a lot of craft (plotting, structure, flow), art (empathy, creativity, imagination) involved. Vince builds profiled characters, a vivid journey from before to after, and pivotal points in between.


Wrap-up

👉 In a world where everything can be built, our only limitation is our imagination.

The SE profession will have to adapt to that to stay relevant. meaning:

  1. Work with customers strategically. Help them see what you see, broaden their perception of what is possible with technology. Grow close relationships. Invest in that. It’s years, not weeks. Adjust the balance: go after strategic opportunities more often.
  2. Retropolate from the future backwards. Don’t just get your product on Bud’s roadmap for the current fiscal year. Co-create a strategic, preferable future with Bud. Identify which capabilities are likely to be needed to get there. Translate these capabilities into action plans, and products. Identify indicators or signposts that help you understand which future actually unfolds – to trigger your action plan accordingly.
  3. Tell stories about that preferable future, that are remembered and repeated. These stories need to permeate into the corporate narrative. This will create the strength, and perseverance to see it through.


Interested in Strategizing, Futures Thinking, and Storytelling? Have a look at our training course menu.

Interested in a virtual. gamified Futures Thinking workshop for your team? We partner with The Future Game 2050.

Contact us for more information.

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